Essay: Religion is Like a Fungus

Some of the most maladaptive social behaviors I see seem to indicate deep human longings for religion and/or magic. Here’s something I wrote about religion in December. It’s weird. You don’t have to agree.

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Religion is like a fungus: seemingly toxic, but an essential part of an ecosystem we don’t understand.

Culture is alive. Just as physical living organisms are interconnected in complex ways, so are cultural organisms.

Our usual approach to Life is to think of organisms as discrete individuals. The plant is one thing, the soil is another, the insects another, and the fungus is some pathogen or pest. The animal is an individual, whose life processes are carried out by its individual organs. A human is one thing, culture is another; an intestine is one thing, gut flora are another.

Only recently have we acknowledged that animal digestion relies on bacteria. Without internal bacteria, animals cannot live. That bacteria is communicated through a complex living environment we remain mostly stupid about.

Religion is like a fungus. Consider Penicillium: a mold that spoils bread. No one wants moldy bread. If our bread is moldy, we curse the mold, and perhaps dream of a world in which mold is eliminated.

Suppose we succeed in wiping out the nasty bread mold. Do we end up with clean, pure bread? No, we open the door to far more toxic organisms.

I am highly critical of established religions. Terrible things are done in their names. They do seem toxic.

But a human mind without religion does not become some pure, rational ideal. The human mind never was and never will be pure or discrete. The human mind exists in a cultural ecosystem we do not fully (or even begin to) understand.

Because cultural ecosystems are barely acknowledged, let alone studied, there aren’t well-developed ways to talk about them. I use the metaphor of soil: human minds are the soil in which culture lives. Culture itself may be “airborne,” like spores. A human mind with permeable ears and eyes will be colonized by music, images, language, gestures, sounds, patterns, and much more we can’t even name. Trying to stop culture from entering a mind by enclosing it just makes the system unhealthy – like wrapping food in plastic. It works for a short time, but eventually traps colonies of microbes, and not the ones you want.

Better to keep the mind nicely aired out, with an open flow of culture around it, so it can stay healthy.

Established religions may protect minds against even more toxic cultural organisms, just as Penicillium makes bread inhospitable for pathological bacteria. For all its faults, Abrahamism may protect minds from even worse ideologies.

Atheism has become very popular in the West over the last few decades. I’m all for it. Except…it has coincided with the rise of some pretty toxic new religions. Foremost is genderism, the belief in an unprovable, indefinable gendered essence (soul) that can be born in the wrong body. Genderism is remarkably popular among professed atheists.  Danielle Muscato is a prime example.

This is anecdotal, and I am only one data point, BUT: I’ve noticed that the most toxic, extreme genderists tend to identify as atheists, while many of the most benign and rational genderists I’ve encountered practice a traditional religion (Christianity). They may not even be genderists per se, but they are transsexuals. I speculate their established religion protects them from the worst cultural toxins – misogny, dishonesty, entitlement, violence – attendant to gender extremism.

For all my criticism of religion, I conclude that humans may need it. Killing off religion may be like killing off “pests”: seemingly beneficial in the short term, but having complex effects on the larger ecosystem that can be catastrophic. Healthy soil needs – largely is – fungi and bacteria. Healthy minds – the soil of culture – may require similarly unsympathetic cultural organisms. Like physical Life on Earth, most mental life is “below ground,” and staggeringly complex. The writhing colonies of organisms that live in dark places may disgust us, but our life and health depend on them.

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PRESS RELEASE: Seder-Masochism to go Public Domain January 31, 2019

—PRESS RELEASE—

On Thursday, January 31, Nina Paley will dedicate her new feature film Seder-Masochism to the public domain, releasing master files on archive.org.

Seder-Masochism, an animated musical, loosely follows the Passover Seder story, with events from the Book of Exodus retold by Moses, Aharon, the Angel of Death, Jesus and the director’s father. The film puts a twist on the traditional Biblical story by including a female deity perspective – the Goddess in a tragic struggle against the forces of patriarchy.

Seder-Masochism has been in the works since 2012 when Paley first animated a scene called This Land Is Mine, a parody about never-ending conflict in the Levant which has been viewed over 10 million times on various online channels.

In addition, Paley has written and designed a companion book, The Seder-Masochism: A Haggadah and Anti-Haggadah, currently available through Amazon.

Paley released her first feature, Sita Sings the Blues, for free to the public in March 2009 under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, dedicating it to the public domain 5 years later. Contradicting movie industry expectations, the more people saw Sita online, the more they sought it out in theaters and film festivals. In December 2009, Sita enjoyed a 5-week run at the IFC Film Center in New York (extended by popular demand beyond its planned 1-week run), and it continues screening in theaters, festivals, and special events to this day.

Accustomed to working outside the mainstream movie industry, Paley has made Seder-Masochism a one-woman project: she wrote, directed, and animated it herself on a total budget of $20,000. Being independent allows her to release and distribute her films in unorthodox ways – such as into the public domain.

A Public Domain dedication (using a Creative Commons license called CC-0) means anyone can re-use, remix, and redistribute the work, with no restrictions. All of Paley’s animation and images will be free for anyone to use however they wish; however the music will continue to be controlled by its copyright holders.

Paley has no plans to pursue commercial distribution for Seder-Masochism. “I claim Fair Use for the music, but distributors are loath to do that. Instead they’d want to obtain music licenses, which would be daunting,” she says.

Seder-Masochism has screened at nearly 20 festivals thus far, including the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Annecy International Animation Festival, and the Jewish International Film Festival of Australia. It is scheduled for more festivals through Spring 2019, including the New York Jewish Film Festival in January.

The Digital Cinema Package (DCP) release will be issued later in 2019, so that upcoming film festivals can be assured of regional theatrical premieres.

The release of her films into the public domain is just the latest effort Paley has undertaken to advocate for Free Culture. In 2008, while navigating copyright for Sita Sings the Blues, she joined the nonprofit QuestionCopyright.org as artist-in-residence, where she later created a series of shorts about Free Culture called Minute Memes. She has spoken extensively about copy restrictions and art, including her 2015 TEDx talk “Copyright is Brain Damage”.

For more information, visit sedermasochism.com or email nina@sedermasochism.com.

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Who is Producer X?

Astute observers of Seder-Masochism will notice one “Producer X” on the poster:

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This is consistent with the film’s opening credits:

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and end credits:

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Why? Who? WTF?

I made Sita Sings the Blues almost entirely alone. That caused an unforeseen problem when it came time to send the film out into the world: I was usually the only person who could represent it at festivals. Other films have producers who aren’t also the director. Other films also have crews, staff, multiple executives, and money. As SSTB’s only executive, I couldn’t be everywhere at once. Often I couldn’t be anywhere at once, due to having a life that includes occasional crises. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I could send an actor like Reena Shah, or musician like Todd Michaelesen, or narrator like Aseem Chaabra, or sound designer Greg Sextro. But most of the time it meant there was no human being representing the film when it screened at film festivals.

I’m even more hermitic now, and made Seder-Masochism in splendid isolation in Central Illinois. This time I worked with no actors, narrators, or musicians. I did try recording some friends discussing Passover, but that experiment didn’t make it into the film. Greg Sextro is again doing the sound design, but we’re working remotely (he’s in New York).

I like working alone. But I don’t like going to film festivals alone. And sometimes, I can’t go at all.

Such as right now: in June, Seder-Masochism is having its world premiere at Annecy, but I have to stay in Illinois and get surgery. I have an orange-sized fibroid in my cervix, and finally get to have my uterus removed. (I’ve suffered a lifetime of debilitating periods, but was consistently instructed to just suck it up, buttercup; no doctor bothered looking for fibroids over the last 30 years in spite of my pain. But now that I’m almost menopausal, out it goes at last!)

Film festivals are “people” events, and having a human there helps bring attention to the film. The reason I want my film in festivals is to increase attention. The more attention, the better for the film, especially as a Free Culture project. So I want a producer with it at festivals.

Fortunately, Producer X has been with Seder-Masochism from the very beginning. After Sita’s festival years, I knew that credit would be built into my next film.

So who is Producer X?

Whoever I say it is.

She’ll see you in Annecy!

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